In Push for Pre-K, Don’t Overlook Kindergarten

When it comes to early learning, full-day, high-quality kindergarten must be part of the conversation
Blog Post
Oct. 5, 2016

Here’s some unsolicited advice to any candidate running for public office this November -- throw a talking point about pre-K into your next speech. No matter the audience, you are sure to get an applause (you can thank me later). That’s because, pre-K has become a widely popular policy proposal among voters. And rightly so. Research indicates that high-quality pre-K yields significant benefits to students and is an integral part of closing educational achievement gaps.

But as my colleagues at New America have said before, lost in the promising discussion about early education is the year that follows pre-K. If pre-K is crucial to giving children a strong start , then full-day kindergarten is a key next step in building on those gains and helping students stay on a successful educational trajectory. Despite this, more than 20 percent of kindergarten age children are not enrolled in full-day kindergarten and a new report shows that most states are failing when it comes to ensuring access to full-day kindergarten that is equivalent to the duration of a first grade day.

Full-Day Kindergarten: A look across the states, a report by Education Commission of the States, indicates that only 13 states plus D.C. require districts to offer full-day kindergarten.  That means that even while policymakers and researchers debate if and how to expand pre-K for four-year-olds, thousands of five-year-olds across the U.S. are left with less than adequate educational opportunities in the year that follows. And even when full-day programs are available, the length of day ranges, from four to seven hours.

(Source: Full-Day Kindergarten: A look across the states)

When it comes to improving early learning opportunities for children, full-day, high-quality kindergarten must be part of the conversation. Research finds that children in full-day programs make stronger academic gains when compared with their peers in half-day programs and that full-day kindergarten can play an integral role in closing achievement gaps between children.

And kindergarten is inextricably linked to the success of a student’s pre-K education. Full-day kindergarten is necessary to create educational continuity and consistency and to maintain and build upon students’ gains made in pre-K. Indeed, when high-quality pre-K is not followed up with aligned, coordinated K-3 education, the gains seen immediately after pre-K have been shown to “fade out.”

Yet the issue of kindergarten remains an ongoing issue as districts and states across the country continue to debate adding and cutting full-day programs. Last year, New America published From Crawling to Walking, a report that examined states’ birth-through-3rd grade learning policies including full-day kindergarten. Two states, Washington and Rhode Island, have transitioned to requiring full-day kindergarten since that report’s publishing. In other states, however, the reverse has occurred. The Arizona legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten in 2011. And, in recent years, full-day kindergarten legislation has been introduced in states such as New Jersey, Virginia, and Maine, but never reached the governor’s desk.

And though only 13 states plus D.C. require full-day kindergarten by state statute, other states are finding ways to incentivize full-day kindergarten even if not legally requiring it. In Minnesota, for example, Governor Mark Dayton signed a law in 2013 to provide full-day funding to all districts offering full-day programs. As a result, nearly all Minnesota kindergartners attend a full-day of school. And where states are not leading the way, many cities and districts are picking up the tab to provide full-day programs to its children.

Nationally, the rate of full-day kindergarten enrollment has risen dramatically in the past 35 years. In 2013, 77 percent of kindergartners were enrolled in full-day programs, compared to 27.5 percent in 1976.

(Source: Child Trends Databank)

Like pre-K, full-day kindergarten is more than just an educational issue -- it’s an economic issue.  The ECS report notes that thirty-seven states and D.C. ban schools and districts from charging tuition for full-day kindergarten. But in states without a tuition ban, many families are left with the choice of either paying tuition to cover full-day kindergarten or relying on some other arrangement during non-school hours.

High quality pre-K for 4-year-olds is an important and integral component in setting the foundation for children’s future success. But pre-K alone is not enough. High-quality, full-day kindergarten is an indispensable component of the early learning continuum and, as the ECS report shows, an area deserving of greater focus and investment from states. Like most questions confronting policymakers, when it comes to early childhood education, the answer should not be an “either/or.” If states are to maximize their investment in the most critical years of a child’s development, the answer has to be “both” and “all of the above.”